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July 19, 2013, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Tech companies’ NSA pushback, and Rolling Stone’s cover backlash

Plus: Keith Olbermann’s back at ESPN, trouble at Al Jazeera America, and the rest of the week’s news in journalism and tech.

Snowden, Greenwald, and the tech pushback: Again this week, we got more of the three core elements of the U.S. National Security Agency leaks aftermath: More revelations about the breadth of NSA spying and attempts to further uncover that information, more developments in leaker Edward Snowden’s attempts to find a safe home, and more debate over the journalistic merits of The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story. Briefly, in turn:

First, an NSA official told a congressional committee that the agency is examining the data of people who are “two or three hops” away from terror suspects, a very large net and one that’s bigger than the NSA had previously acknowledged. In response to the ongoing revelations, a group of Anonymous hackers claimed to have broken into and stolen data from a server of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Meanwhile, tech companies are pushing back harder against the secrecy surrounding government use of their users’ data. A group of top tech companies and a variety of nonprofits wrote a letter to the Obama administration asking for more transparency regarding data requests, though The New York Times noted that telecommunications firms refused to sign on. Meanwhile, Yahoo won a court order forcing the U.S. Department of Justice to reveal documents that Yahoo says show how it fought a secret court order to hand over its users’ data, and Microsoft also asked the U.S. attorney general to allow it to release similar information about how it responds to government requests for user information.

Second, in his first public appearance since he arrived in Moscow, Snowden renewed his request to Russia for asylum. Later in the week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Snowden could only stay in Russia if he stopped leaking U.S. secrets, but that Snowden ultimately wants to stay somewhere else once he’s able. The U.S., Putin said, has effectively trapped Snowden in Moscow by revoking his passport.

Snowden hasn’t said much publicly other than that Moscow press conference, but Greenwald has given several interviews in which he’s said that Snowden has more documents that amount to a blueprint of the NSA and that, if released, could seriously damage the agency’s interests. Greenwald took issue with a particular Reuters article, characterizing those statements as a sort of threat on Snowden’s behalf. Greenwald said the point he was making was to highlight the fact that Snowden hasn’t released those documents and thus is more intent on prompting democratic debate than harming the U.S.

Which brings us to the third area: Greenwald said all the attention on Snowden and him, and the questions about both of their intentions is merely “an ongoing effort to distract attention away from the substance of the revelations.” Others, such as Jillian York at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, also castigated the American media for continuing to focus on Greenwald and Snowden rather than the substance of their revelations. Der Spiegel’s Marc Pitzke suggested that part of the reason for the backlash is that the U.S. media is wary of the competitive threat Greenwald’s Guardian is beginning to pose stateside.

Reuters’ Jack Shafer argued that the Greenwald backlash was prompted instead by a slavish devotion to the “corporatist ideal” of journalism, one that betrays a extremely incomplete understanding of American journalistic history. In fact, Shafer argued, partisan journalism has been an indispensable part of American journalism since its founding.

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Terrorists and the rock-star treatment: Rolling Stone published a long profile this week of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that was met with outrage not for its content, but for the rock star-like cover image that accompanied it. The opposition poured in not only on social media (well documented by BuzzFeed and Boston magazine) but also from more consequential sources, such as the victims of the bombing, local political officials, and magazine retailers such as the pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens, all of which was documented well by The Boston Globe. On its own cover, the Boston Herald called the Rolling Stone cover “dumb as a rock.” A Massachusetts State Police photographer, in response to what he called the insult of the cover, gave new photos of Tsarnaev’s capture to Boston magazine to publish.

Rolling Stone issued a statement defending the cover story as “within the traditions of journalism” as well as the magazine’s history of serious political and cultural coverage. Plenty of others were defending it as well: The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern, Complex’s Foster Kamer, The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson, Politico’s Dylan Byers, USA Today’s Rem Rieder, and Northeastern University’s Dan Kennedy.

A few common arguments ran through their pieces: The magazine still called him “the bomber” and “a monster” on the cover, hardly the full rock-star treatment; Rolling Stone has a rich history of doing substantial journalism on serious topics like this, so the cover isn’t out of place for the magazine; The New York Times ran the same photo on its front page and no one complained then (something Wemple explored in another post); and Rolling Stone’s cover was smartly subversive, illustrating that the face of terror looks more like ourselves or people we know than we’re comfortable admitting. As Stern wrote, “By depicting a terrorist as sweet and handsome rather than ugly and terrifying, Rolling Stone has subverted our expectations and hinted at a larger truth.” On the other side, Rachel Sklar pushed back against each of those arguments, making the case that the cover was “the irresponsible glamorization of a terrorist.”

The New Yorker’s Crouch argued that the cover’s backlash revealed the public’s post-terrorism “hostility toward free expression,” as well as “a kind of culture-wide self-censorship encouraged by tragedy, in which certain responses are deemed correct and anything else is dismissed as tasteless or out of bounds.” Blogger Dave Winer flipped the rock-star subversion on its head, saying that Rolling Stone has revealed its own pretense by showing that the rock-star exterior it loves to display can hide some truly evil stuff. And Hypervocal’s Slade Sohmer said the magazine’s sin is in being not offensive, but boring, by featuring an already heavily used photo.

Reading roundup: Only a couple of big stories this week, but quite a few interesting smaller ones:

— The judge in the military trial of WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning decided not to drop the charge of “aiding the enemy” — the most serious the government has leveled — against Manning for his leaks. Several people explained why this ruling could be so damaging to future whistleblowers, including Ben Wizner of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Mike Masnick of Techdirt, and Emily Bazelon of Slate.

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— After 16 years apart, ESPN rehired Keith Olbermann this week. Olbermann was a legendary anchor there before leaving acrimoniously in 1997 and working throughout the last decade on politics for MSNBC and Current TV. Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch noted Olbermann’s contrition and called it a “low-risk, high-upside” move for ESPN, though Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici questioned whether Olbermann will be able to stay away from politics.

— The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald reported on a lengthy, irate internal email indicating that Al Jazeera may be toning down the voice of its new American network Al Jazeera America in an effort to make itself more palatable to American viewers and cable distributors. Joe Pompeo, who wrote a feature on the new network last week, pointed out that this isn’t Al Jazeera’s first attempt to formulate an American-friendly image of itself.

— The Knight-Mozilla OpenNews is taking applications for 2014 class of programmer-journalists fellows, so it’s posed the question, “Why develop in the newsroom?” to several news developers. The range of responses is wonderful — several of them were rounded up by the project’s head, Dan Sinker, and there are a few others floating around, like the one from NPR’s Brian Boyer.

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported that Google is trying to license TV channels to create an online paid TV service. It’s joining Apple among the tech giants working to move paid TV online, and The Times reported on the status of Apple’s different approach of working more closely with cable distributors and programmers.

— Medium’s Bobbie Johnson issued a caution against overdoing the current trend of “snowfalling” — creating ambitious, longform multimedia stories like The New York Times’ celebrated feature last year by that name. Many of the times it’s done, it doesn’t actually help the reader, he said.

— Finally, Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham issued some invaluable advice to tech startups, led by the admonition to “do things that don’t scale.” A lot of it is really useful for those of us who are outside of the startup world, too.

Photo of Keith Olbermann by Vaguely Artistic used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 19, 2013, 10 a.m.
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